Dead Dog in a Suitcase and other love songs

Carl Grose, music by Charles Hazlewood
Kneehigh
Everyman Theatre, Liverpool

Dominic Marsh as Macheath Credit: Steve Tanner
Giles King as Colin Lockit and Audrey Brisson as Lucy Lockit Credit: Steve Tanner
Martin Hyder as Les Peachum Credit: Steve Tanner
Rina Fatania as Mrs Peachum Credit: Steve Tanner
Andrew Durrand as Filch and Dominic Marsh as Macheath Credit: Steve Tanner
Dominic Marsh as Macheath Credit: Steve Tanner

A brand new Kneehigh show always provokes some excitement—at least in our house—as even the least successful of the Cornish company's shows are interesting. So even getting stuck in a long traffic diversion and having to wait nearly an hour for our food in the theatre's new bistro didn't dampen our spirits too much.

The new piece is an adaptation of John Gay's 1728 satire The Beggar's Opera, often said to be the first musical. Writer Carl Grose and director Mike Shepherd have taken the core of that story and created a more general tale of political corruption set in modern times but without specific satirical targets.

The eponymous dog belongs to Mayor Goodman (Ian Ross), whom contract killer Macheath (Dominic Marsh) has been hired to bump off by corrupt businessman Les Peachum (Martin Hyder)—whose business interests include pilchards and concrete—so that he can take his place. However Macheath kills Toby, the dog, as well, which Goodman's widow (Patrycja Kujawska) carries around in a suitcase as she plots her revenge. However there are several identical suitcases and several collisions between the people carrying them.

In the meantime, Macheath marries Peachum's daughter Polly (Carly Bawden) in secret, but the pregnant daughter of corrupt, kilted police official Colin Lockit (Giles King), Lucy (Audrey Brisson), also has a thing for him, which could be useful when he needs to make his escape. However, when he arranges to run away with Polly, can he resist the seedy delights of the Slammerkin club—and can the girls there be trusted to keep his presence a secret when there is a large reward on his head?

Commenting on the action are Punch and Judy and other puppets, including the dog himself, under the direction of Sarah Wright, one of the Little Angel Theatre Wrights. Michael Vale's design gives the performers a huge platform and other moving stages as well as a large slide on which to play.

The whole thing is just great fun from beginning to end. There may be a few niggles with the plot if it were analysed in detail, but in performance it just flies by. It's probably one of the funniest Kneehigh productions I've seen, but there are also moments when it turns a bit nasty or sinister.

Grose's script is witty and full of subtle verses and rhymes. Hazlewood's music spans styles from the folky sound familiar from other Kneehigh shows through to punk, with a definite '80s vibe going on in some areas, such as Peachum's Ian Dury-style pieces and a wedding dance straight from a Madness backing track and perhaps even the Adam Ant stripe across Macheath's face.

Lockit's songs jump more the '90s with a good approximation of Keef from The Prodigy, whereas his daughter changes from melancholy, poetic folk to full-on punk screams when she discovers Macheath's treachery. The ending is a perfect marriage of staging and music as the audience is engulfed in a maelstrom of debris while the ghost of the dog haunts Peachum and the band plays very loud, unmelodic rock music. Wonderful stuff.

Somehow, this clash of musical styles not only works but fits perfectly with Kneehigh's style of work in general. The use of microphones is admirably restrained, restricted only to those numbers that need a loud pop or rock vocal tone.

Marsh is beautifully sinister as Macheath, King is brilliantly physical as always as Lockit, Rina Fatania gives a tour-de-force performance as the frankly quite scary Mrs Peachum and Andrew Durand plays the put-upon Filch, the inefficient gaoler and one of the girls in the Slammerkin with great conviction—especially the latter.

But really, Kneehigh is an ensemble company and this really comes through in their productions. Beggar's Opera seems, on the surface, like an ideal Kneehigh project but it wouldn't have worked for a modern audience in its original form.

The transformation is spectacularly successful, turning it into a fabulous piece of entertainment with very impressive performances from this multi-skilled cast.

Reviewer: David Chadderton